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10 Challenges To Scale An Online Community or Social Network

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

The challenges are quite predictable:

1) Rising levels of spam and abuse.
As an online community grows, you will encounter more incidents of spam and abuse. This is partially mathematical. 0.1% of the population being trolls sounds fine until you have 1m members and 1000 trolls to deal with every day.

It’s also partly the outcome of having a higher profile. The bigger your community becomes the more of a target it becomes to those looking to provoke a reaction. Finally, it’s also about the nature of discussions. More discussions provide more opportunities for people to disagree and attack one another.

2) Declining quality of discussions.
In the early stages, an online community may attract the most devoted, hardcore, fans of the topic. These are people with considerable expertise and can engage in high-quality discussions. However, as the community grows it attracts more newcomers and those less interested in the topic. This group often start more beginner-level discussions or repeatedly ask questions which have been asked many times before.

As the quality of discussions declines, it is common for the regular, expert, members to drift away either to private groups or disappear from the community altogether leaving the community solely with low-quality discussions and inviting someone to create a rival community.

3) Declining sense of trust/community.
The early-stage community tends to attract members who form close bonds, know one another, and share high levels of homophily. All of these breed a strong sense of community and trust. However as the community grows, especially when it reaches stages of fast growth, members will recognize less and less of the members.

The newcomers are also likely to know and understand the history of the group. They will not use the same references to insider jokes or unique language. As a result, this destroys the trust established by community members which may either cause regulars to flee or destroy established and beneficial norms of reciprocity.

The lack of trust means many members are less likely to share information about themselves or their projects which harms the overall quality of the community.

4) Participation inequality.
The most famous problem is rampant participation inequality. The majority of social networks are said to abide by a 90-9-1 rule (often criticized by us) which highlights that 90% of people lurk, 9% participate, and 1% create. Whether this metric is true depends largely upon the definitions used and nature of the platform. However, participation inequality is a major problem.

Many large-scale communities frequently become dominated by a small group of regulars with strong common histories who suck up most of the attention and recognition from one another. This creates a sense of social stagnation where members do not participate because they never feel they can gain the acceptance of the core group. As such, most communities become dominated by a relatively small percentage of their total audience.

5) Highlighting quality and authority
As more people participate and contribute to a community it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish high-quality contributions and genuine experts from low-quality contributions and non-experts. As the quantity of contributions increases, it becomes ever more important to highlight the best quality information in the community or the most relevant information to each individual user.

This may also cause frustration and the departure of top members who may believe they are failing to gain the recognition they deserve. This can also cause confusion about the validity of responses and reliability of the information participants receive in the community.

6) Answering questions at scale.
In the early days of a community, it may be possible for a community manager or brand representative to answer every question in the community personally. However, as the community grows this becomes impossible. This often results in the quality of responses declining, the time to receive a response increasing, or reliance upon others to answer questions at the same quality.

In support communities where answering a question is the very reason for the community’s existence, this can become a critical problem very quickly. If the majority of responses fail to receive a rapid reply, the community’s raison d’etre disappears.

7) Privacy, security, and legal threats.
As a community grows it becomes an increasingly attractive target for hackers and others who wish to do the community harm. A community may store many personal details about community members which are imperative to keep private. If these details are released, members of the community may take legal action against the community.

This is closely tied to the legal challenges involved in growing a community. Members might post material which is illegal or the community might fall foul of data privacy laws in different member countries. This can become a critical problem in scaling a community.

8) Building echo chambers and restraining activism.
Larger online community groups often foster online activism which, well-meaning or otherwise, causes problems. This might be attacking a perceived enemy or campaigning in a manner which reflects extremely badly upon the community. This is often caused by an echo-chamber effect in which members only wish to receive information that supports their existing views.

This can often lead to an increasing level of extremism among community members, as members look to gain the support of others by citing increasingly extremist viewpoints within the field and attacking those whose viewpoints disagree from their own.

9) Demands upon technology.
In a small online community, the server can easily support the bandwidth of a few thousand active community members. However, as the community demands increase and new features (such as uploading videos, photos, and files) are introduced along with a rapid growth in the number of members, you can throttle that bandwidth quickly. Hosting can also become extremely expensive on many providers.

The community may soon require more features than those offered by the community platform. They may request best spam solutions, integration, voting, and plenty more features that require either upgrades to the platform or new platforms entirely.

10) Managing a team and volunteers.
A growing online community requires an increasingly large team of paid staff and volunteers to support the rising level of work. Yet paid staff may soon find the majority of their time consumed resolving petty disputes, replying to the most common questions, and struggling to build real relationships with members.

It may also be difficult to keep volunteers motivated as the level of recognition for each volunteer drops as the overall number of volunteers increases. Volunteers may ask for increasingly more costly rewards to sustain their interest.

If you’re growing an online community, none of the above should come as a surprise. The very best of us are those who can figure out innovative solutions to tackle each of the above.

(h/t Pipes To Platforms)

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